All the cool kids are cranky about ethics

21 06 2012

Julea Ward, a counseling (not social work) student in Michigan with an unfortunately misspelled name (I’m annoyed with her, I can be petty) got rather tetchy when asked to see a certain client during her internship. This was no ordinary client, you see. The young man was a…homosexual.

Are we all scandalized? Have your pearls been sufficiently clutched?

Ms. Ward said she couldn’t “affirm homosexuality” because it “goes against the bible.” And why shouldn’t she be able to avoid gay people all her life, including in her work? She’s not going to be a counselor at a Broadway musical or roller derby event, for god’s sake! It’s not as though the gays are three dimensional individuals you might encounter in, say, a high school, where Ms. Ward would like to work.

Now, Michigan has taken it upon themselves to say that anyone studying in a “counseling, social work, or psychology program” doesn’t have to deal with people who engage in behaviors that go against their sincerely held beliefs. Legislators, they know better than us silly helping professionals! It’s similar to how much I enjoy it when a judge tells me how I ought to be engaging a child in counseling.

Are we all done laughing?

Ms. Ward was not studying to be a social worker. But this ridiculous law extends to us. Even though it violates our own code of ethics. That makes it fair game for my righteous anger and sarcasm.

Our code of ethics calls upon us to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to” lots of things, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. We also are not to “practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of…sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

Nothing in that code of ethics says, “unless the religion you choose to follow says not to. Then forget it, run as fast as your legs may carry you, but you can still totes be one of us!” No. We’ve got a profession to uphold. If you simply want to talk nicely to people and help them feel better, then do it on your own time without a title. As social workers, we don’t discriminate.

We’re also not supposed to discriminate based on religion, some clever, outside-the-box thinker always brings up. (I know I’ve been punching you in the face for hours, but you hit me back. That’s bullying!)

Ms. Ward’s beliefs were not being discriminated against. She can hold whatever misguided views she wants to. But she wants to be a professional and attend an accredited institution. Which means she can’t turn and run whenever a gay person walks in the door. What if the person isn’t totally gay, but experimented a little at a Boy Scout Jamboree? I mean, where exactly is the line? What if the person is being held as a slave and isn’t obeying his master, (Ephesians 6:5), would Ms. Ward still be willing to counsel that person? I’m just wondering, because she says she doesn’t go against the bible.

Not to mention that no one is telling a Christian counselor at a public agency or school to “affirm homosexuality.” It doesn’t need affirming, it just is. Ms. Ward was not being asked to sit with this client gabbing about his latest date, saying, “Ah, guy on guy action. Yes. Way to go!” She was supposed to help him in managing his depression. (Which I’m sure this debacle worked wonders for.) Even if his sexual orientation was a part of what he was working through, it doesn’t matter. You don’t say that you won’t deal with someone because a part of who they are just isn’t good enough for you. If a social work intern told me that they wouldn’t work with a Dominican family, or an interracial couple, I would think they were in the wrong profession. Just as I think Ms. Ward is.

I don’t have religious beliefs. But I have values. Violence, particularly against a weaker, defenseless person, goes against my values. Exploiting someone’s addiction goes against my values. Helping a child to decorate her jacket with Justin Bieber paraphernalia goes against my values. However, these are things that I have to work with.

We don’t get to be all that picky in our work. For one thing, the people who truly need our help typically have, you know, problems. Drug addiction, anger management, mental illness…you know, the kind of people Jesus would shun.

I’m being told that’s actually the opposite of what Jesus would do.

Clinical social workers, and other clinicians in private practice, can choose who they’re going to take on and who they won’t. They can have their reasons. They should be in line with our code of ethics, of course, but they have some leeway and control in terms of what populations they specialize in and who they take on. Every social worker, particularly every social work student, I know works for an agency. Ms. Ward, as I mentioned, planned to be a school counselor.

No big deal. Most high schools have at least fifteen different counselors, so someone could pick up the cases that Ms. Ward felt squeamish about. Right?

Oh, no. That’s not how it works. In this field you get what you get, and you do the work on yourself to make sure you can deal with it. I didn’t think I would be able to work with sexually abused children. I wouldn’t go to an agency that serves this specific population exclusively. But I’m part of a team, and this is an issue that comes up all the time. I can’t say, “sorry, I don’t do that. I’m special and I get to choose.” I got my shit together, and I do my job.

We can’t say that we’re only going to work with people who do things our way. Of course we try to help people to change their harmful behaviors. But if you think living openly as the gay person you were born to be is harmful, then you need to do some research. Research that isn’t sponsored by Focus on the Family or the National Organization of Marriage. Research by or supported and accepted by the organizations you supposedly have enough respect for that you want to attend their accredited institutions and be a part of their body of professionals–National Association of Social Workers, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, all those guys.

That’s what pisses me off, in addition to the blatant homophobia hidden in religion. Educate me, legitimize my work, but let me do whatever I damn well please, because I have beliefs. No. You can’t have it both ways.

We know our profession, and we know our values. We need to have enough respect for it to stand up for it to those who don’t.

Days like this (in a good way!)

21 02 2012

Is it me, or have things been depressing around here lately? A crappy awards show encouraging America to embrace an admitted domestic abuser, children being shot, three days of useless trainings…

That last one was just me.

My twelve year old, the victim of the shooting, deserves all sorts of awards for being an incredibly tough, resilient kid, and is doing amazingly well. He is home and recovering perfectly. We’ve discussed the fact that this college essay will be flawless. I greatly appreciate all the support from readers, and I know he would as well.

So I think it’s time for some happiness.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a frantic phone call from a school social worker demanding that I get over to the school, as there was an emergency with one of my thirteen year olds. She went so far as to insist that I give her my personal cell phone number, so she could be sure I was on my way.

I pride myself on my trustworthiness and punctuality. Doubting them is a really good way to get on my bad side.

I asked what was wrong with Jackie Roberts (obviously not her real name, as I am not an asshole) but the school social worker told me that there was no time to explain. Honestly, explaining would have taken less time than that dramatic, Jessie Spano style “THERE’S NO TIME!!!!!!!!”

I seem to have a different definition of the word “emergency” than many people. If it doesn’t warrant a call to 911, I wouldn’t call it an emergency. If it is a real emergency, don’t call me, as I get queasy easily and will just try to put ice on things.

When I got to the school, Jackie was crying in the office.. The AP was impressed that I had gotten there so quickly, so the school social worker assured her it was because she threatened to come get me if I didn’t get over there right away. I said, “I don’t know about that, I’m here for Jackie,” and reminded myself that this school social worker has been a positive influence in my girl’s life and that dropkicking her would be a poor example to set.

Jackie tearfully told me that her mother didn’t care about her. There may be a thirteen year old girl somewhere on the planet who hasn’t felt that way, I just haven’t met her. Jackie said that her mother favored her other siblings.

The school staff explained that they had called Mrs. Roberts because Jackie kept having problems with one particular girl in her class, and they wanted the parents to meet. Jackie’s mother got frustrated and refused, saying she wasn’t dealing with Jackie causing problems anymore.

Not ideal. But let’s remember–mom has nine kids, one of whom is severely disabled, she has been clean and sober for five years, didn’t make it beyond the seventh grade, and has a terminal illness.

“Overwhelmed” doesn’t quite scratch the surface.

Mrs. Roberts is an extremely tough woman. She loves her children fiercely, but her favorite word is “fuck,” and they communicate their love via sarcasm and humor. Obviously, I love them dearly, but I can see how other people might misinterpret the family’s intentions.

My dear school social worker also told me that mom had a problem with Jackie being a “tomboy” (translation: gay) and objected to her having a “little girlfriend” (translation: no, really gay.)

This, I couldn’t understand. I was at the home when one of the older girls brought her girlfriend home for the first time, and mom’s only question was, “OK, you gonna be nice to her?” Mom has also always let Jackie spend time with her aunt and aunt’s girlfriend.

The school social worker started talking about the feasibility of removing the children, and whether they could find a foster home for all of them together. I thought that this was the equivalent of showing a man wedding reception seating charts while speed dating–jumping the gun just a bit.

We determined that Jackie was not afraid to go home (safety first!) and formed a plan. I went over to the home a few hours later, shortly before Jackie got home from school. I was prepared for one of “those days.” I figured I would leave with a child safe, but unhappy and feeling unloved. I was ready for Jackie’s mom to tell me that she didn’t care what I or anyone else thought, that Jackie was just fine and the family would do what they wanted.

That’s not what I got.

Mrs. Roberts was, in her words, fucking pissed. She didn’t understand why Jackie couldn’t stay out of fights. We talked about Jackie’s need for her mother’s love, and the fact that mom could relate to Jackie’s difficulty in controlling her temper. Mrs. Roberts agreed that she wanted to spend more time with Jackie and talk more openly with her.

I asked about the gay issue, as I had to. Maybe I had completely misread this woman, and she was a violent homophobe who was damaging her daughter’s self esteem.

“I know she likes girls, I don’t give a shit. I worry about her getting teased at school but there ain’t shit I can do about that. That’s why I got to be friends with her girlfriend’s mother, because the two of them spend so much time together. You know I like gay people, Ms. SJ. All my kids can be gay.”

She turned to Jonathan, her eight year old. “Jonathan, you like boys? You can like boys, you know.” He looked mildly scandalized. “Ma, I like girls.” “I know, you’ve said that, I’m just saying you can like whoever you want.”

Her seventeen year old son Anthony walked in. “Anthony, you wanna like boys?” “Ma, for the last time I’m not gay! Thanks for the offer, though.”

I guess I can see how her feelings on the subject were misconstrued…

Jackie got home, and the three of us sat down in her bedroom. Jackie was still emotional, because she’s thirteen and it is therefore in her nature. She initially sat at the opposite side of the bed, but her mother put her arms out and told her to move closer.

That cold hearted bitch.

Mrs. Roberts spoke openly and from her heart, more so than I’ve ever heard her. She was still mom, of course. Her speech was still sprinkled with obscenities, but Jackie and I both knew how it was all meant.

Jackie tearfully told her mother that she felt that she got blamed for everything. Mrs. Roberts told Jackie that she was sorry, and needed to try to yell less. This was the first time I heard this woman acknowledge that she had something to work on.

They talked about how the children used to get hit, when mom drank. Mrs. Roberts told her that she’s working on yelling less as well, but that it was a process. She told Jackie that she wanted to have more “girls’ nights” with Jackie and her sisters. They talked about Jackie’s girlfriend. “I don’t know what you did to that little girl, but she’s obsessed with you. Did you kiss her? Did you touch her butt?”

Jackie giggled furiously. “Ma, that’s gay.”

At this point, I couldn’t help it, and laughed out loud. “Jackie, you did not just say that. You are ridiculous.” Jackie and her mother, tough women of the Bronx, giggled right along with me.

I saw Jackie at school the next week, and she cheerfully told me about the night before spent chatting and play fighting with her mom. We also discussed Valentine’s Day gifts, as it was time for serious business, and what could be more serious than that?

That session with Jackie and her mom was one of my favorites I’ve ever had. This mother wants to love her child, and just needs some support in showing it. This girl does not want to leave her home, though it’s imperfect. They are far from a sitcom family. If one were to hear half of the things they say out of context, that person would probably catch the vapors.

But they love each other, and they’re making it work. They crack each other, and their social worker, up. They’re exactly what we’re working for. Families face crises and bad days. They’re not fun, but sometimes great things can come from them.

And that can turn one of “those days” into one of these days.

Let’s hear it for New York (the rest of that quote makes no grammatical sense)

27 06 2011

I’m sitting here, prouder to be a New Yorker than I have been in a long time. No, we didn’t get a new theme store in Times Square. The Mets didn’t do anything remarkable, and the Yankees haven’t been traded to Guam. But Friday night, we achieved marriage equality within my state.

Watching the state senate vote yes on same sex marriage was one of those rare, special moments when you know you’re witnessing history. Even rarer, because you know you’re witnessing history in a good way, not watching events like Columbine or 9/11 unfold on TV. It was like hearing Jon Stewart call the election in favor of Obama, or seeing the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t witnessed that much history.

But Friday night was enough. Sitting and watching anxiously with my roommates, after convincing one of them that Anchorman on TNT could wait. (I mean, we have three copies on DVD.) Trying not to get our hopes up, but saying things like, “I think it’s actually going to happen.”

And then it did! Celebratory ciders all around, victory shouts heard throughout the neighborhood, and it was as if things had always been this way. “Remember way back this morning, when same sex couples couldn’t get married? Weird.”

Of course, there were some downers. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., mostly. I took a drink every time he was asked to wrap up his rambling speech, which was the only thing that got me through it. It contained such gems as, “God, not Albany, set the definition of marriage.” I would say he should stay at his church, not in Albany, if he really feels that way, but unfortunately his church is located in the Bronx. We don’t want him. Though it is gratifying to watch him be left behind by history. It’s nice to think of him being remembered as an even less effective George Wallace of this civil rights movement, an embarrassment to his family and district.

There were others, most notably Senator Grisanti, who really summed up not only being a good politician, but also a pretty decent  person. Grisanti’s speech essentially stated that, though he was raised to personally believe that same sex marriage was wrong, he had to separate this from his work and recognize that all people were deserving of fair and equal treatment.

My social work sense was tingling the entire time.

It doesn’t make everything perfect. We don’t have full equality and acceptance, things aren’t magically better. This is one step, a massively important step, towards inclusivity.

I am already excited for the way that this affects not only the lives of my friends, family, and all New Yorkers, but for how it affects my work as well.

A lot of the LGBT people we work with are young, struggling with their identity, and dealing with being only marginally accepted, or outright rejected, by their families and communities. Some social workers I know, particularly workers I met in Japanese Game Show social work school who fancied themselves the Most Out Of The Box Left Thinking Social Worker There Ever Was, talked about marriage equality as an issue of privilege. Something that didn’t matter to a homeless teen.

But people who say that are kidding themselves. The right to marry might not mean a whole lot to a teenager recently kicked out of his parents home and struggling to make it day to day. But living in a state that grants that teenager his basic rights and recognizes him as a full citizen counts for a lot. Just listen to couples who have been together for ten, twenty, fifty years, talk about what marriage means to them. Being recognized as a legitimate couple and family, having equal rights…that’s good for everyone.

I certainly hope that, if I had been around during the 1960s civil rights movement, George Wallace and other segregationists would have pissed me off just as much as Ruben Diaz did. Because stripping people of their rights and humanity goes against our values, personally and professionally.

As social workers, and decent people, we need to keep fighting for equality. And we also need to celebrate this victory.

Cider’s on me!

Real men wear pink

13 04 2011

Guys, you are not going to believe this. I hope everyone is sitting down.

Fox News published an offensive, ill-informed article.

I know, right?

A psychiatrist wrote this report about a truly horrifying photo of a mother in a J. Crew catalogue painting her little boy’s toenails. She was painting them pink.

Oh wait, that’s not a big deal? No one fucking cares? It has no effect on this child, indicates nothing about his personality, and we should think it’s nice that he and his mother spend time together and not read anything into it? OK, cool.

I can’t believe we even have to have this discussion. It’s just so silly. Adults, not these children, make it an issue. Frequently, these adults are not even the people most involved in the child’s life. (Beautifully pointed out in this article.) But this is a social work issue.

So often parents come to us, wanting to know if their children are “normal.”

“She’s eating paste…do they all do that?”
“He talks to himself. And he answers.”
“She only answers to the name Twilight Sparkle.”

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had a parent come in, concerned because their young child eschews gender norms. I worked with an eight year old girl who only wanted Spiderman toys. I agreed that this was lame, because Batman is so much cooler, but then I realized something. Mom was concerned that her daughter was a lesbian.

It’s not like the kid wanted a Wonder Woman action figure.

Child development is kind of our thing. We understand that sex and gender are not fixed as a permanent concept in children until around age six. We can help nervous parents to understand a few important things:

  1. Your little boy having a tea party or your baby girl wanting to be a race car driver does not indicate anything about their sexuality.
  2. Whatever your child’s sexuality, you better just accept it, because there’s nothing you can do about it.
  3. Whatever your child’s sexuality, you shouldn’t want to do anything about it. It is a part of who he or she is. One identity is not superior to another

Acceptance, treating people with unconditional positive regard, and seeing the worth and dignity in every person are all important parts of our ethical code as social workers. This includes children. And it includes helping their parents to accept them, rather than want to change them.

My brother and I both wore pink and blue. My parents didn’t care. We watched Free to Be…You and Me, where we learned that it was a-ok if William wants a doll, and that it’s all right to cry–crying gets the sad out of you! I hated Barbies and was obsessed with Ninja Turtles. I refused to wear dresses. My brother was forced to watch and sing along to the Sound of Music more times than he cares to remember by his sister and all his female cousins. We both loved writing. We grew up with gay adults in our lives, and never thought that there was anything wrong with being gay.

And yet neither of us turned out gay.

My little cousin was captured for all time at age three, happily waving the baby doll and crib that I sent him for Christmas, crying later on when he misplaced his “dolly.” He grew up to be an enthusiastically heterosexual star athlete.

Doesn’t make sense, if we listen to the good asshole doctor in the offending Fox ‘news’ article. It’s so easy to alter someone’s sexuality! Just a nudge this way or that and it’s welcome to Gayville, population: you.

Therefore, it must be just as easy to turn someone straight.  Just slap a little nail polish on the girls, and give the boys a football. (No lesbians wear nail polish, and no gay boys like sports. It’s just science.)

We all know it doesn’t work like that. In the words of a great 21st century philosopher, you were born this way…baby.

Some idiots do believe that you can turn someone straight. The National Association of Social Workers disagrees. As does the American Medical Association. And the American Psychiatric Association. Oh, and the American Psychological Association, The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Association of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Physician Assistants…

You know. A bunch of elitists.

Parents worry about everything to do with their kids. Are they happy, are they healthy, will they be successful, will they get hurt, don’t they ever shut up?

It’s our job to help them to understand what truly constitutes a problem. To let their children know that they are loved, and that they are worth something, no matter what. We need to help parents understand that, as much influence they have over their children, there are things that can’t, and shouldn’t be, changed.

There’s enough to worry about with kids. This stuff? Let’s just help everyone accept it.

A Snarky Title Seems Inappropriate When the Topic is Suicide

4 10 2010

Unless you’ve been too busy viewing Facebook photos catching up on progress notes to watch the news, you’re probably aware of what’s being called an “epidemic” of suicide amongst teens who either are gay, or are perceived to be gay. Asher Brown, Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Tyler Clementi, and Raymond Chase all took their own lives in the past month.

Wow. It’s even exhausting to write.

It’s being discussed ad nauseum all over: MTV, CNN, the Times, Jackass Central Focus on the Family, and a variety of other blogs. (Apparently, there are other blogs.)

I felt the need to bring it up here. Because this is a social work issue.

Some of us work in schools. A lot of us work with children and teens. All of us work with gay people, whether that is the focus of our work and our agency’s mission or not.

This is a social work issue, because this is affecting our kids.

I used to work with a ten year old boy who got bullied mercilessly in school. He was sweet and sensitive. His mother loved him, but she just couldn’t understand him.  His father desperately wanted him to toughen up. The school staff thought if he stopped whining and “being such a target,” the bullying would stop.

I assumed that this kid was gay. He never mentioned anything one way or the other, but it seemed likely. (I noticed him staring at my chest one day, and thought maybe I had the kid pegged wrong. Until he looked up at me and said, completely genuine, “Miss, I love your necklace.”) His parents also never brought up his sexuality, but it was clearly their number one fear.

I no longer work with this family, or this child. But I worry about him. Whether he’s gay or not, that’s the perception people have of him. Was Billy Lucas gay? No one knows, but his peers tormented him because they thought he was.

GLSEN, a great resource, tells us that nine out of ten LGBT middle and high schooler experience harassment at school, and they’re four times more likely to commit suicide.

This is a social work issue because we can do something about it.

These kids talk about wanting staff and other adults to intervene on their behalf, and to protect them. Social workers have a long, usually proud history of working with marginalized people. We have a commitment to serving people who need us the most.

This past month has sent us a clear message about who needs us.

One of my coworkers works with a fifteen year old boy who identifies as gay, and as of late is considering that he might be trans. He’s figuring himself out, but he’s comfortable. He loves wearing make up, and his manicure is always much better than mine.

And he is mercilessly tormented in his Bronx public high school. The school has admitted that they can’t protect him, and recommend that he stay home until they can get him a safety transfer.

This kid is fortunate to have a supportive mother, and a great social worker. When my coworker went to this teen’s school to talk about his future, she brought a male coworker of ours as “backup.” Not because she was concerned about being attacked by the students if they started to harass him. Because she thought she wouldn’t be able to hold herself back from slapping a child if the harassment occurred.

That’s a Mama Grizzly for you, Mrs. Palin.

Even so, we’re concerned about how much he can take.

We’re planning to start a group for LGBT teens, and our traditionally Catholic agency is surprisingly receptive. I’m hopeful that it will have some effect in convincing these kids that they’re not alone, people do love them, and that it gets better.

We all need to work on this. I would sincerely hope that anyone reading this is pro-equality in all respects, including marriage, ending DADT, and other issues. It is the social work way. But whatever your political leanings are, these are kids we’re talking about. And we can help them.

Because this is a social work issue.